Not long ago I was workshopping a short story in
which the young Abraham Lincoln is a key character.
on Gore Vidal's Lincoln
The story takes place in Illinois (Springfield and
New Salem) in the 1830s. In one scene, Lincoln and
some other politicians watch a pair of women slip in
the mud while trying to cross the street -- and
promptly crack jokes at their expense.
Someone in my workshop asked: Why didn't Lincoln
help them up? Would the
Abe Lincoln really have stood there, laughing?
This is why historical fiction is hard to write.
Based on what we know of the young Lincoln, it is
entirely believable he would've stood there
giggling. But when many readers think of Lincoln,
their minds go on autopilot. They consider him a
hero. They expect him to behave like a legendary
president, rather than what he was in the 1830s: a
politically astute young man who'd never pass on the
chance to bond with his peers through humor.
I'll always love Gore
because of the way it unabashedly portrays the title
character -- warts and all, but with plausible
historical accuracy. I sometimes wonder if Vidal had
to endure meretricious questions from his editors at
Random House. Here's a quick dose of the Lincoln we
come to know through Vidal's novel:
"For several years Washburne, stout and rosy, had
been urging Lincoln to eat more, if only to cure
himself of a constipation so severe that he seldom
moved his bowels more than once a week" (9).
"About 1839 or '40, Speed was keeping a pretty woman
in Springfield, and Lincoln, desirous to have a
little, said to Speed, 'Speed, do you know where I
can get some?' and Speed said, 'Yes, I do and if
you'll wait a moment, I'll send you to the place
with a note....Lincoln told his business, and the
girl, after some protestations, agreed to satisfy
him. Things went on right. Lincoln and the girl
stripped and went to bed" (288).
"They say there's a lot of syphilis here, thanks to
the army and all. God knows there was a lot of it in
Illinois back in the 'thirties, when Lincoln had it"
"Lincoln turned his cloudy gaze on the large man, a
minister from New York. 'The aspiration of men is to
enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this
broad continent not a single man of your race is
made the equal of a single man of ours'....Although
Lincoln had a true hatred of slavery, as much for
the brutal effect it had on the masters as on the
enslaved, he was unshaken in his belief that the
colored race was inferior to the white" (356).
Back in May, at Grub Street's outstanding Muse
& the Marketplace conference, I went to a
terrific talk by Thomas
Mallon. Mallon described a few schools of
historical fiction. One of them, which Vidal's Lincoln
embodies, is what you might call "accurate." These
books are thoroughly researched, and the idea is to
make the story believable. Then there are what you
might call "campy" historical fictions: Whimsies
Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which aim for fun
and frivolity from the first and which lean far more
on authorial imagination than genuine homework.
What I'll always treasure about Lincoln
is how firmly rooted it is in fact. Quoting Vidal's
afterward: "All of the principal characters really
existed, and they said and did pretty much what I
have them saying and doing, with the exception of
the Surratts and David Herold...."
To read Lincoln is to ruin yourself for half-assed
forays into historical fiction. To this day, I get
headaches from Don Lee's Country
of Origin, which is, to be fair, a
novel from a well-respected author. But I will
never forget hearing Lee read from the novel at the
Wordsworth bookstore in Harvard Square. One attendee
challenged Lee on his depictions of Japan in 1980.
Lee admitted to the audience that he was far more
concerned with crafting a well-paced mystery than
with believably recreating the Japan of 1980. It
just didn't matter to him.
As I skimmed the novel, I noticed that Lee had named
a character Doug
Marabelli. The name caught my attention
because, at the time, the Red Sox had a player named
Mirabelli. So I asked Lee: Did you actually
name a character after a backup catcher? And he
admitted to it. He wasn't even remotely ashamed
about it either. In no way did it crimp his
And that's fine. Different strokes for different
authors, and all that. If my debut, Zinsky
the Obscure, is half as successful or
acclaimed as Country
of Origin, I'll be elated. But...when I
think about Vidal and the thrills he provided me as
a reader, I'll always appreciate the way that Lincoln
was both a page-turner and a testament to the role
research can play in the creation of a masterpiece.
Ilan Mochari is the author of the novel Zinsky
the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2012).
His short stories have appeared or are
forthcoming in Keyhole,
Stymie, Ruthie's Club and
Oysters & Chocolate. In
2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship
grant from the Somerville Arts Council. He is a
former staff writer for Inc,
and he has also written for Fortune
Small Business and CFO.
He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.